Americans wanted to implement manifest destiny and own the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Why would they name territories and states after Aboriginal American tribes? For instance, why were North Dakota, South Dakota, and Kentucky named that way?

From the Americans' point of view, this would seem to do two things that are distinctly negative:

  • It chips away at American influence. Names influence power and the perception of power. If Americans name a state "Gray Boulder" or "Madison", that gives Americans better influence than if they name it after an Aboriginal American tribe.

  • It would seem to discourage settlement in those areas! Why would Americans leave from New York to settle in a remote area named after people who they are fighting, and who are characterized as hostile and savage?

I also don't buy the fact that they would need to do this to co-opt or placate the Aboriginal Americans in that area. I think it would have been obvious to all parties that the Americans had the military power and numbers to achieve their goals.

  • In most cases, the states weren't named after the tribes. They were named after what other people called those tribes.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 21:55
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    For the same reason housing-projects (often) are named after the plants, trees or animals that had to be "removed" to make room for it? Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 17:09
  • @Bobson: Fair point. Question still stands though.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:25
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    @BaardKopperud: I guess that's possible. It's sort of the auto-pilot naming system. I will definitely re-assert though that naming a state is a huge thing. I can see naming a creek after someone without analyzing the political ramifications of it for weeks. But the name of a state is a huge thing. If it was auto-pilot naming, then perhaps my question can be reworded to basically ask if Americans were foolish from a political point of view to not adopt a more Americanized naming system. Because in retrospect it seems that it would have been.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:27
  • @Anonymous - I had another thought on this: you really need to define what you mean by "American" in this context. More English (like Virginia and New York)? More French (like Louisiana and Detroit)? More Spanish (Like Florida and Montana)? Most large features were named before America had a cultural identity that you'd recognize as American.
    – Bobson
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 22:50

3 Answers 3


As DA. says, this question vastly oversimplifies things. However, there's actually a relatively simple answer: States were named after the Territories they were formed from.

Of course, then you have the next question: Why were the Territories named after Native American tribes? And the answer to that is that often, they weren't. Or at least, they were named after what one group called another group, rather than what the group called itself.

For example, here's North/South Dakota:

  1. Louisiana is named after King Louis XIV (French). When the US bought it, they named the whole thing the Louisiana Territory.

  2. When part of it became the state of Louisiana, the rest of it became the Missouri Territory, after the Missouri river, which was a name adapted by the French settlers from the name which the Illinois-speaking Native Americans called the Siouan-speaking tribe in the area. (The Missouria called themselves Niúachi in Siouan, but our name is derived from Wimihsoorita in Illinois).

  3. When Missouri became a state, a chunk of the rest of the Purchase became the Nebraska Territory. Again, it was named for a river, in this case the Nebrathka or Nebraskier river, which was the name in the Otoe's language.

  4. Finally, the Dakotas were named for the Native Americans in the area, although it wasn't what any of the tribes there called themselves. Instead, it comes from the word for "ally", which is how they referred to each other.

Corollary to all this, names have sticking power. If you've been calling the area where the Dakota people live "the Dakota's land" for 50 years, then when you go settle there you're settling in "Dakota land". That's what people further away will know it as, because the name has had time to spread. You may found your new city based on a name that's more familiar to you (your name, or a national hero, or a descriptive name, etc), but when you're referring to the general area, you refer to it by the name that most people will know it by. (This is the same idea where you might say that you're from "New York City" or "Eastern US" to someone from France, but the "Lower East Side" or a specific street to someone from Brooklyn.)

Names like Louisiana, New England, and Virginia are exceptions to this, because they were named either by people overseas (and thus didn't care what the locals already called it) or by newly arrived explorers who had yet to actually establish communication with the locals.

I'll also point out that very few names are based on what the tribes actually called themselves. Instead, they're almost all based on what they called each other. Further reading on that can be found in Wikipedia's page on Exonyms vs Endonyms (the names people give each other vs the names they give themselves). To the best of my (admittedly unresearched) knowledge, few (if any) "native american" names are endonyms. Every single one I know about, except for small towns or buildings that have been founded or renamed in the last ~100 years, is based on what some other group called the locals, or a corruption thereof.

  • Thanks for the great explanation of that history. Perhaps the question can be rephrased to ask if, from a purely political point of view, Americans could have, and should have, been more aggressive if using Americanized names. I'm having a little trouble believing they couldn't have named North Dakota something else and still had people go along with it.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:38
  • @Anonymous what do you feel they did wrong with calling it "North Dakota"? At the time it was part of the Dakota Territory, so from a purely branding standpoint, it was already a known name.
    – user1530
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:40
  • There's nothing wrong with it. This is a political question. Political groups tend to name things after themselves and in their own language. I think this is a pretty standard tool in terms of political power. I have never understood why the Americans didn't carry this out with things like the states. I feel like they could have, and I'm just not sure why they chose not to. In terms of the Dakota Territory, the question then falls back to why they named the territory that. The context for the question remains the same.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 19:52
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    @Anonymous - Political groups tend to name things after themselves and in their own language - Do you have any proof to back this up? I don't think this is actually the case, with the exception of modern totalitarian governments. Starting with a mistaken premise will cause strange results.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 21:14
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    @Anonymous - Look at the place names in England - many names predate Christian England and even Roman England. Why is Lancaster still named after a Roman Fort? Aside from pronunciation place names don't change much over time.
    – Mayo
    Commented May 7, 2020 at 19:11

This question's premise is oversimplifying and generalizing the relationships between Europeans and Native Americans over a huge span of time. There's a ton of history here with a lot of nuance.

The reason so many places in the US are named after Native American nations and/or named after the original Native American term is that we shared this land for hundreds of years. Sometimes quite peacefully, sometimes not.

There was no out-right "we must take all of this land" mantra. It was a slow process piece-by-piece. Sometimes legitimately, often not.

  • Yes, I think pretty much everything you say is true. However, I think the validity of my question still stands. Even if Americans lived peacefully with certain tribes for a certain period of time in certain areas, why would they name states, or anything else, after those tribes? The explicit and implicit frame of my question is that they simply didn't have to, and furthermore, it would have been better for their interests if they hadn't. For instance, we get along fine with Poland. But we don't name anything after Poland, and especially not states! The naming of a state is huge!
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 17:45
  • 'better for their interests' isn't very specific, though. There was no one particular set of interests spanning those many hundreds of years. People name locations based on what people call those locations. It makes sense that a lot of locations had names like "Dakota land" already.
    – user1530
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 18:08
  • I can only refer back to my assertion that whoever names something has power over it, and power over the people who have to use that name later on. If we named all our streets after Russian leaders, and had Russian leaders on our currency, and our states were named after Russian icons, I think it's safe to say that that would cede power and influence to Russia at America's expense. Assuming Americans in the past understood this principle, and I believe they did, I'm left wondering why they would have done this. Of course, my second point about discouraging tourism is also relevant.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 18:49
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    There wasn't some underlying, agreed-upon, unanimous strategy over naming locations across the continent. It was ad-hoc, informal, and based very much on local whims. As I stated, it's also incorrect to believe there was some sort of power-play going on. I think that was certainly the case in some regions with some native nations, but that wasn't the case in other places. All that said, this might be a better question for gis.se or english.se
    – user1530
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 18:51
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    Again, naming a state is a huge thing. We're not talking about the names they chose for a quarry. Also, gis.se and english.se don't seem to be appropriate. I'm not trying to figure out if the names are 100% faithful to the Aboriginal Tribes in question. Perhaps the question can be rephrased to ask if the Americans were politically foolish to have not Americanized those names. The question can be stated in two ways. First, in terms of how things actually worked out, from their point of view. And second, in terms of the best theoretical political solution, from their point of view.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:29

The U.S. states named after aboriginal tribes were states where whites and Indians got along relatively well. Often, these states were "less desirable" land that the whites didn't mind sharing with the Indians. For instance, the "Dakotas" are among the least attractive land in the United States. Americans herded Indians from other, more desirable states like Montana and Wyoming to the Dakotas.

Kentucky was another example. It was named after the Indian "Kaintucke" by Daniel Boone, a white "frenemy" of the Indians. He fought them, but he liked them, and they liked him, more than other white men. It was left alone for some time, because it was a "backwater" for Virginia.

It was the more desirable territories, particularly along the coasts, where whites didn't want to share land with Indians, and preferred European names. That is true for the 13 colonies, and also for Gulf Coast lands like Florida and Louisiana (state).


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